Professor Richard Herr

For all the nonsense written in Australia about Fiji, there has always been an oasis of reason and common sense at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the independent think tank set up by John Howard’s government to provide fresh ideas on the country’s defence and strategic policy options. ASPI has again fulfilled its brief with an article in The Australian that urges Canberra to go much further than the restoration of full diplomatic ties announced this week. It’s by the Institute’s two leading commentators on Pacific affairs – its Director of Research Programs, Dr Anthony Bergin and Professor Richard Herr, the constitutional and governance expert who is well known in Fiji as Director of the Centre for International and Regional Affairs at the University of Fiji.

Dr Anthony Bergin

Among other things, they’re even advocating that Australia resume defence contacts and the training of Fijian military personnel in Australia. We’re reprinting the article below in unformatted text because of The Australian’s pay wall.

BY: RICHARD HERR AND ANTHONY BERGIN From: The Australian August 03, 2012 12:00AM

FOREIGN Minister Bob Carr’s announcement this week that Australia and Fiji are to restore full diplomatic relations and that travel restrictions on Suva will be eased has engendered some passionate debate. Some analysts explained that Australia’s turn around on its policy settings on Fiji was to preserve our leadership role in the neighbourhood. Others dismissed any suggestion that Carr’s move was a cave-in to Suva that might risk our regional hegemony.

Fiji’s move away from its traditional friends isn’t much different from the rest of world adjusting to China’s rise in the Asian Century. But that didn’t stop some arguing that Canberra’s shift from it’s hard line stance on Fiji was driven by urgent pleas from Washington that Australia re-engage to stop Fiji’s slide away from Western influence, especially in the direction of China.

Our trade unions and other groups have long supported a strong exile and expatriate lobby in demanding that Australia not have any truck with an illegitimate and “interim” government in Suva. But now that Australia has decided to reattach the high commissioner’s brass plate to the chancery in Suva, serious thought ought to be given to how to use the more elevated relationship.

The Fiji government hasn’t deviated one jot from its roadmap for elections in 2014 since Prime Minister Bainimarama announced it in July 2009. Keeping travel sanctions won’t assist restoring parliamentary democracy to Fiji: they have simply resulted in capable Fijians being deterred from contributing to good governance in their own country and been partly responsible for Suva looking beyond its traditional friends to keep the country afloat. Life goes on in Fiji with or without sanctions. But while they are there, they are perceived by Suva as a calculated insult against the Fiji government that ensures that Suva looks to other partners.

Following Foreign Minister Carr’s very positive announcement this week we should move to restore relations between our military and Fiji’s armed forces. We need to build trust with Fiji’s military, who will continue be somewhere between the background and the foreground depending on the constitution. We should open Duntroon, the Defence Academy and Staff Colleges to Fijian Defence force members. After all, we built on military connections with Jakarta when Indonesia was in transition to democracy.

We need to re-engage with Fiji not out of fear of Suva’s Asian connections but to ensure balance in these new relationships. This balance is especially important for our regional relationships with the Pacific Islands. Fiji is vital to any effective regional system. Using the Pacific Islands Forum against Fiji was tantamount to cutting off our nose to spite our public face in the Pacific Islands. The Pacific Islands Forum is in serious difficulties due to having been sidelined by the imbroglio over Fiji. The regional torch is being carried by other arrangements, such as the Melanesian Spearhead Group, where our voice isn’t present or welcome. If the Forum is to prosper then Fiji should be brought back into a leadership role.

Richard Herr and Anthony Bergin are the co-authors of Our Near Abroad:Australia and Pacific islands regionalism, Australian Strategic Policy Institute